Robbie Burns and Scotch whisky – they go together like haggis and squeamish stomachs. The grand poet loved the spirit, and the spirit paid him in return, lubricating his quill with inspiration.
Yet there's a wee irony in the association of those twin pillars of Scottish culture today. A tenant farmer and champion of the underclasses, Mr. Burns – celebrated tonight in memorial suppers around the globe – curiously became a proletarian hero in Russia and China. In Russia, he was dubbed the "people's poet" and was lionized with a Soviet postage stamp in 1956.
Meanwhile, the Scotch industry is celebrating its best run ever thanks to growing demand for Western luxury goods, not least among the newly minted rich in Russia and Asia. Exports during the first half of 2011 grew by 22 per cent in value to a record $2.8-billion (equivalent to 569 million bottles), defying the general economic malaise. During the same time period, exports to Asia increased 33 per cent.
The spirit today bears scant resemblance to the mostly raw fare of Mr. Burns's 18th century. I wonder what would the egalitarian bard make of it all.
Though robust single malts, distilled entirely from barley and containing spirits made by a single distillery, get most of the glory, the Scotch market is vibrant at all levels. Exports of smoother blended whiskies, which usually combine lighter-tasting corn and wheat spirits with an assemblage of single malts, grew by 5 per cent in value in 2010 over 2009. Blends, including such familiar names as Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Grant's and Dewar's, still make up roughly 75 per cent of sales by value.
Many blending houses have been moving upmarket, too, crafting such brand extensions as the excellent Black Grouse from the Famous Grouse and Cutty Black from Cutty Sark, which incorporate smoky nuances of peat, the earthy fuel source used to dry barley in most single malts. Some also contain fruity richness imparted by casks that once held sherry. Independent bottlers, who typically buy aged whisky stocks from distilleries to create their own blends, are pushing the innovation envelope. One Florida-based company called Scottish Spirits has even released – wait for it – Scotch in soda-pop-sized, unresealable cans, ideal, it says, for camping and tailgate parties.
You don't need a Burns supper to enjoy the selections below. Try them any time, preferably straight up with a small splash of water to lift the aroma (three parts whisky to one part water is usually nice). I think Mr. Burns would have approved.
Longmorn Aged 16 Years
Score: 94 Price: $99.95
Medium-bodied and malty, with vanilla, caramel, cereal and an attractive earthy essence leading to cedar, spice and well-integrated peat, this non-chill filtered malt caresses the palate with a lusciously oily texture. ($88.95 in Nfld., $89.99 in N.S., $84.79 in N.B., $99.49 in B.C., approximately $78 in Alta.)
The Macallan 18 Years Old
Score: 94 Price: $249.95
An iconic single malt, aged the old-fashioned way – in former sherry casks rather than the ex-bourbon barrels now standard in Scotch maturation – it's a treat for the nose, with rich fruit marrying well with grain. On the palate, it's sweet and round, with smooth vanilla and creamy caramel almost stealing the show from the underlying barley. ($252.25 in Que., $249.99 in N.S., $250.09 in Man., $249.95 in B.C.)
The Glenlivet Nadurra Aged 16 Years
Score: 93 Price: $81.55
"Nadurra" is Gaelic for natural, a nod to the fact that this special bottling from a major single-malt producer sees no chill filtering, a common practice that keeps whisky from turning cloudy on ice but strips oils that contribute texture and flavour. A lovely perfume of barley and fruit gives way to big warmth on the palate (thanks to 55.1-per-cent alcohol). Firm and juicy, it offers up honey, vanilla, bold spice and earth in fine balance, with roasted nuts appearing late in the game. ($80.75 in Que., $65.99 in N.B., $89.99 in B.C. and approximately $78 in Alta.)
Highland Park Aged 21 Years
Score: 92 Price: $289.95
Vanilla, fruit and dead forest wood play on the nose. Then comes a mouthful of sweet cream and honey before woody spice and subtle smokiness remind you this is not dessert. It's a compelling single malt for those who favour smooth oak.
Singleton of Glendullan 12 Years Old
Score: 91 Price: $49.95
The 750-millilitres bottle looks like a large hip flask – call it an Alberta mickey. Light medium-bodied, this new single malt is aged in a combination of sherry and bourbon casks. The barley comes through beautifully in the form of toasted cereal, sweet dried fruit and fudge, balanced by peppery spice. It's a bargain. ($41.99 in Nfld., $49.95 in N.S., $50.99 in Man., $47.45 in Sask., $49.99 in B.C., comparably priced in Alta.)
The Balvenie Peated Cask Aged 17 Years
Score: 91 Price: $161.95
Most smoky Scotches get their chimney charm from peat-fuelled fires used in drying damp barley malt. This limited-edition bottling owes its smoke to contact with casks that once held peated whisky. The unconventional technique has a peculiar yet compelling effect. There's barely a peaty waft on the nose, yet the sooty essence comes through boldly on the palate, harmonizing well with Balvenie's signature rich maltiness and honey as well as with sweet tinned fruit. Once current shipments run out, there will be no more of this unusual elixir. ($162.90 in Nfld., $162.50 in B.C.)
Grant's Blended Scotch Cask Edition "Sherry Cask Finish"
Score: 89 Price $27.85
Ten years ago, Grant's – in the distinctive triangular bottle – was first to "finish" a blended whisky in sherry casks. For up to four months at the end of its years-long maturation, the spirit ages in wood that once held nutty Spanish fortified wine. Richly textured for an affordable blend, it offers up delectable raisin along with honey, roasted almond and a nuance of smoky peat. ($28.95 in Nfld., $27.95 in B.C.)
Dewar's White Label
Score: 89 Price: $23.95
When Scotch is this good at this price, it's clear why blended whiskies still dominate the market. Round, oily, sweet, nutty and a tad smoky – there's lots going on in this succulent, popular, easy-drinking brand. ($25.99 in Nfld., $25.99 in N.S., $26.95 in Sask., $24.99 in Man., $23.75 in B.C.)
Hazelburn 8 Years Old Single Malt
Score: 89 Price: $94.95
Distilled three times rather than the standard two for Scotch, it's spiritually closer to lean, thrice-distilled Irish whisky. Coincidentally, the distillery on the south tip of the Kintyre peninsula (yes, that's the Mull of Kintyre immortalized in the Wings song) is physically about as close to Ireland as a Scot can get without a boat or plane. Pear- and banana-like fruit get things going in this unpeated single malt, with toasted bread making a strong appearance.